How to Talk to People in Korea

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AKA Slow Motion Teacher Talk.

It's a disease.

The first symptom, as you might guess from my subtitle, is slower speaking speed. Unsurprisingly, if you speak quickly to someone in a language they aren't super comfortable with, they won't understand you. It's the same for me with Korean. If someone mumbles or talks too fast, I can't catch anything, but if they slow down for me, suddenly a world of comprehension opens up for me.

When I first started teaching, I was nervous. When I'm nervous, I speak more quickly. I think a lot of people do this. In an ESL classroom, though, fast talking is not gonna fly (though it is great for saying things you don't want your students to hear). That was the first critique I got from my co-teacher: slow down. So I did. Suddenly, a classroom full of unresponsive glassy-eyed students began to understand me. Maybe not everything I said, but finally I was getting through to them on some level.

So began my descent into what I refer to as "teacher English". I find that the changes can be organized into three groups, starting with...

 

Slow Down


Like I said, the first change, for me at least, was speed. When I talk to non-Korean friends, I talk fast. I mean, I don't sound like a conversational auctioneer, but I also didn't inherit my dad's slow southern drawl. If I'm excited I can pass on a record amount of information with a single breath. But since I came to Korea? Well, it's like going from the autobahn to a school zone.


When I'm teaching, I always have to keep a little voice in the back of my head saying "slow down, relax". If you think you're speaking slow enough, try to go a bit slower. If your students start laughing at you, you've probably slowed down too much. Try to find that sweet spot where they can follow what you're saying but you don't sound like a tape player running low on battery power.

Another part of the big slowdown is a sort of...spacing of your sentences. For example, let's say I'm telling a story about my car stalling on a bridge. Normally, I would tell the story like this:

"Last year, I was driving on a bridge, and suddenly my car stopped, right in the middle of the bridge. It was really scary, and I don't know anything about cars, so in my panic I called my dad to help me instead of thinking to call a tow-truck or the police or something."

In class, it would go something like this. "Last year...I was driving on a bridge. In the middle...my car stopped. My car was broken. I don't know...about cars. It was really scary. But...I didn't call 911. I called my dad." (cue laughter)

As you can see, the longer more complex sentences get broken up into shorter statements, and sometimes I'll even take a pause in the middle of sentences to allow people to catch up. I try not to let this happen too much with my higher level students or my friends who are super good at English (gold stars for you all, seriously) because I don't want to teach them weird, unnatural sounding English, but for anyone at a lower level, it really seems to help.

 

Simplify


This shows up in a few ways. Most obviously, it's helpful to cut out all your slang. "You got it?" becomes "Do you understand?" "Wanna grab a cup of coffee?" becomes "Do you want to drink some coffee?" "I'm not feeling up for it" becomes "I'm too tired." Notice the trend? It's gotten to the point where I'm so used to making this change that I had a hard time coming up with examples. If I stay here too long I'm going to lose all my slang and start talking like a textbook. True nightmare scenario right there.
Imagine this said with no inflection, 100 times a day.

It's also good to avoid idioms and cultural references, unless you're ready to explain them. Now, if you're working with students who are a high enough level, this kind of thing might be a piece of cake for them, but with lower levels you don't want to bite off more than you can chew. For example, with my co-teachers I can say "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse!" because I know they know the saying, or at least I can explain it easily, but if I said that to my students, I'd probably get blank looks. Things like "piece of cake" are even worse. There's no real logic to that one. Is cake inherently easier to eat than other food? Does deliciousness equal easiness? Inquiring minds want to know!

The other aspect of simplifying your language is harder to explain. It means building your sentences out of grammar that's easier to understand, that your students are more likely to know. For instance, I won't usually say that something is "harder" or "easier" or "simpler"; I'll say it's more hard, or more easy, or more simple, just because I know that will be easier for my students to figure out. Instead of saying "This weekend I'm going to study" I might say "This weekend I will study." The more you know about their level, the more you can tailor your langauge to incorporate what they already know, which helps to build confidence, and also helps when teaching new vocab, since you can sandwich it in with stuff that's already kicking around somewhere in their brains. Supposedly.

Sign Language


No matter who I'm talking to, I use my hands. I think it's pretty universal, though some people are more prone to gesticulation than others. However, the longer I spend in middle school classrooms and with my less than fluent Korean friends, the more my life begins to feel like the longest running game of charades in history.

http://roketship.tumblr.com/image/283802047

 
 Sometimes I worry that this is becoming too much of a crutch. It also makes me feel a bit like a clown, but frankly, if it helps my students or friends or doctor to understand what I'm trying to say, I'll take it. It also works as a great way to elicit target language without giving too many hints. Want them to say baseball? Mime swinging a bat. Though I think I must suck at this one, because they always guess tennis. I've pretended to be a seal, I've faked a coughing fit, make my fist into the shape of my home state, all to get points across that otherwise would have been impossible.

The most common gestures are those in the classroom. Listen: touch my ear. Write: mime writing. Work together: mime pushing two students together. The list goes on and on. What I've found helps the most in regards to classroom hand gestures in consistency. Whatever you choose to mean listen, or write, or shut the eff up, make sure it's the same every time, because then even the lower level students will be able to follow along, and hopefully it will help them catch up on the basic classroom language.





The worst part about all this is that I can't stop. Now, no matter who I'm talking to, I sound like an English teacher. Fortunately it hasn't seeped into my writing yet, but I fear that day can't be too far off. The other thing I've noticed is that bits of more...shall we say...Korean phrasing have been sneaking into my lexicon. For example, I regularly find myself encouraging people to "Take a rest" if they seem sick or tired. There's nothing inherently wrong with the phrase, grammatically, but I don't recall ever putting those words in that particular order before I moved to Korea. Another common phrase is "Do you know (insert any noun here)?" Instead of asking "Have you heard of the Beatles?" I'd be more likely to ask "Do you know the Beatles?" It's a small change, but it comes directly from the way most people here communicate with me. I know there's more, but somehow they're all slipping out of my brain in this hot weather.

Do you teach ESL? Has it changed the way you talk? Any tips? The comment section is always open.

Teacher Pretty
Middle school ESL teacher, lover of pink, eater of kimchi, addicted to Etude House, expert procrastinator, meeter of 2-dimensionial popstars: Ana. That's me.

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